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SEAL training

bin Laden operation brings back memories for county treasurer

Posted: May 10, 2011 7:41 p.m.
Updated: May 11, 2011 5:00 a.m.

Kershaw County Treasurer Steve Vincent woke up Monday morning, May 1, and saw the news: Osama bin Laden was dead.

“The first thing I thought was, ‘Well, that’s good,’” Vincent said.

But when he learned that U.S. Navy SEALs had taken out the No. 1 terrorist in the world, he let out a good “Hoo-yah!”

The news that a SEAL (SEa, Air and Land) team was responsible brought back many memories for Vincent. Today, Vincent is county treasurer and a minister. He was once a Kershaw County sheriff’s deputy. But in 1985 -- more than a year after joining the U.S. Navy -- Vincent started undergoing what is perhaps the most intense training in the world.

He trained to become a Navy SEAL.

From Mt. Pisgah to Coronado

Vincent, 51, made it very clear: although he went through all the training, he never became a SEAL.

“You have to go through certain qualifications. Near the end, I had a personal situation distracting me that I felt I needed to focus on, and I ended up back with the regular fleet,” he said.

Entry even into training for the elite force is based on a points system. Although he completed every part of SEAL training, Vincent ended up with too few points to receive a SEAL assignment.

Vincent had wanted to go into the Navy for years before he joined in 1984. He grew up in the Buffalo/Mt. Pisgah community where he developed a particular fascination with explosives.

“I would make these tin can cannons,” Vincent explained. “I’d take the cans, take off two or three of the tops and bottoms and tape them up together.”

Tennis balls, and maybe a few other objects, would go flying through the Mt. Pisgah air.

“My mom said the shots were loud enough to make the windows vibrate in the house,” he said.

Vincent went through the Kershaw County school system. When he got out of high school, he split his time between working at DuPont in Lugoff and attending college at the University of South Carolina - Lancaster. While working for DuPont, Vincent became a certified SCUBA diver. He went rock climbing and hang gliding.

“I was young, doing crazy stuff,” Vincent said.

He got to be friends with another DuPont employee who noticed the kind of things Vincent was doing.

“He said, ‘You’re going into the Navy SEALs,’” said Vincent. “I didn’t even know what that was, but I did a little research and it looked like a good idea.”

Vincent said that when he signed up, a recruiter told him he could get into the SEAL program right after basic training.

Things aren’t so simple. It took Vincent another year and three months to earn enough points for the SEAL program to accept him. What put him over the top was work he did aboard the USS Stump.

“I was on a Caribbean op with the regular Navy and ended up working with the admiral’s staff. I earned a letter of commendation and, when I got back, took the letter and got the two more points I needed to get into the program,” explained Vincent.

He was told he could leave in 30 days or leave the very next week.

One week later, he was heading for Coronado, Calif., where every Navy SEAL is trained.

‘A kick in the groin’

Training to be a SEAL is long and rigorous, taking approximately a year and, in Vincent’s case, comprised of three phases. The first Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL, or BUD/S school.

“It’s used to make sure you’ve got the right stuff,” Vincent said. “After you go through it, you’re on six months’ probation. It can take up to a year before you get the Trident.”

The Trident is the Navy SEAL’s special warfare insignia, earned only after completing the training for, and being accepted into, a SEAL unit.

Vincent described BUD/S training as a “kick in the groin.”

“There’s two weeks of pre-training -- all PT (physical training). It’s tough, but not as tough as it gets later. The instructors told us, ‘It’s gonna get worse. If you wanna leave, leave,’” Vincent said.

He was part of Class 135. When BUD/S started, he was one of 122. Vincent would be one of only 36 to finish months later. Many of those who dropped out did so during BUD/S, he said.

“If you wanted to leave, you would put your helmet on the Grinder,” said Vincent, referring to a concrete and asphalt area where BUD/S students work out. “Then you’d ring this bell, three times.”

That bell, he said, was available 24/7 for those who decided enough was enough.

And they did.

Sometimes they rang it after going through one of the toughest obstacle courses Vincent ever faced.

“It’s not an easy course. It’s surf torture, or surf enhancement, if you want. The instructors show you the technique and you can get through it in 20 minutes the first time. It can take months to get to where you get through in nine or 10 minutes,” Vincent said.

The course is made up of obstacles to go over or under. The difference -- one that makes sense when considering what SEAL stands for -- is the sand.

“It’s like sandpaper between your legs,” Vincent said, who talked about ripped pant legs, bruised ribs and even lost toenails. “You get sand in your boots and your feet swell up. The instructors really put you through it. They want to stress you out -- and that was just when we were starting out.”

Hell Week

The biggest week of BUD/S training is Hell Week. Vincent’s no longer sure, but said he remembered his Hell Week coming in the fifth week.

“Early in the morning, you’re taken out to a tent. They set off flash bangs and fire M-60 blanks right by your head. It doesn’t stop. You eat four times a day, but you really burn the calories with timed runs and swims and a lot of PT.”

Most of that PT is done in teams with each member helping to carry a rubber “inflatable boat small,” or IBS overhead. Vincent spoke of one test involving what he called “rock portage.” The team takes the boat out into heavy surf, pushing through waves coming toward shore. Once they get through, they turn around and bring the IBS back to an area of shore filled with rocks. The waves are now pushing you toward those rocks.

“Nobody likes rock portage. The only time they’d cancel it was if there was fog, so we’d pray for fog,” Vincent said.

Other PT included performing team sit-ups and weightlifting-style exercises using a log.

“They made us carry it out to a sand berm, get it wet and bring it back,” said Vincent, remembering a chant used to express SEAL candidates’ feelings about the exercises. “‘Log PT -- better for you than for me.’”

The obstacle course is part of Hell Week, which means sand is, too.

“Your groin area would be rubbed raw from chafing. Some guys looked like they had been dragged down the road,” said Vincent.

He said they had to go through the course back-to-back three times, all while carrying the IBS. A different kind of challenge would come up as BUD/S students dealt with the IBS or log-carrying PT.

“As guys dropped out, the instructors would change up the teams. You’d up with guys of different size and you’d have to adjust how you were doing things,” said Vincent.

Being SEAL candidates, swimming tests were part of Hell Week. Swimming tests with your hands or your feet bound, or both.

“It was a way of making you drown proof,” Vincent said. “You had to swim 20 minutes with your feet bound, 20 minutes with your hands bound and 20 minutes with both bound. And you had to swim the length of the pool and swim down to the bottom and pick up your mask with your teeth.”

He said even the dolphin kick -- the only kick you could do under those circumstances -- was hard to do with hands and feet tied. The whole point of the tests, said Vincent, is actually to get you to be comfortable in the water in stressful situations.

In fact, Vincent said, the entire concept of SEAL training is to make sailors comfortable in dealing with any stressful situation they may face on a mission.

After getting through Hell Week, Vincent said he went through three more weeks of training involving hydrography (underwater mapping), Morse code, safety and CPR. Then came reconnaissance, demolition and patrolling training.

Still at Coronado, Vincent and his fellow BUD/S students were classroom-taught about the weapons they would use. In the mid-1980s, those included the M16 rifle, M60 machine gun, M79 and M203 grenade launchers, and Beretta pistol, among others. They were also familiarized with C4 and TNT explosives; different gadgets, such as one that could cut an anchor chain; and claymore and limpet mines.

Limpets can be magnetically attached to a ship’s hull. Vincent said they can be detonated either by a timer or when an enemy tries to remove one.

“We had to demonstrate that we could make the demolition calculations. You had to be within two or three seconds. If you were told to make a two-minute fuse, it had better be two minutes,” he said.

San Clemente

Finally, Vincent was ready for Phase II of his SEAL training. Class 135 moved to San Clemente Island where they put their training into practice.

There was still PT, though, including four-mile runs and two-mile swims.

“If you couldn’t make it, you were put on the (remedial) ‘goon squad.’ I caught myself on those several times,” Vincent said, forced to do extra PT to make up for the failures.

He and his fellow students were tested on their weapons knowledge, taking firearms apart and putting them back together all while having questions shouted in their face about velocity, range and parts. Instructors would sometimes put a bullet in the gun to throw the students off.

“If you messed up, you would have to carry a metal pallet up this hill to a ‘mother frog’ and ask for forgiveness.”

According to one story on a Navy SEALs online forum, the giant frog -- pink in color -- was originally used in parades in Coronado during the 1960s and 1970s. It was brought to San Clemente by a previous BUD/S class to use as a motivational tool.

In addition to the weapons training received in basic training, San Clemente had a firing range.

“We were trained to lay down a wall of fire -- they wanted the firing to be continuous so you didn’t give the enemy a chance to fire back,” said Vincent.

And they were sent out on “missions.”

Vincent remembers his team being sent out to perform a recon-and-destroy mission on a mock missile. Instructors were enemies -- enemies that would change things up on you.

“One of the SEALs’ mottos is ‘The only easy day was yesterday,’” Vincent said.

But it was fun, too, he said.

“We had C4 and we took the ‘bad guys’ out and set a four-minute fuse,” he remembered. “We pulled the pin, gave a ‘hoo-yah!’ and humped it over the hill. Then there was a big light and ‘whump, whump, whump.’ It was great.”

Not so fun was cast-and-recovery training in the waters off San Clemente.

A bungee cord is attached to the front of a boat. A rubber hose is attached to the bungee cord. An IBS is attached to the side of the boat.

BUD/S students “cast” themselves into the water from the IBS, wait and watch for the boat to come back around. Holding one arm out like a hook and kicking their feet so they lift themselves out of the water, someone in the IBS uses the rubber hose to snatch them up.

Then there’s the four-hour, 15-mile run and swim around the island with currents pushing you usually against the direction you’re swimming.

“But it just doesn’t matter; you do it, you get it done,” Vincent said.

Part of Phase II also consists of a week in the California desert with not much more than uniform, MREs (meals, ready to eat), compass and M16.

“It’s hot and miserable, but good navigation training,” Vincent explained. “You have to get from point A to point B to point C without being detected.”

Diving deep

Vincent might have been a little more prepared for the third and last phase of his Navy SEAL training than others. Phase III involved dive training; Vincent was already a certified SCUBA diver. Still, there’s nothing like training to become a SEAL.

An important thing to learn was how to navigate underwater. Vincent said he was taught how to map out an underwater course, go in with a buddy and swim.

“You had to take the current into account and these were long swims,” he said.

There was also a huge dive tower set up to simulate deep dives with two diving bells to provide air pockets.

“You’d have to pull yourself down and get under the lower bell,” explained Vincent. “In there, you could talk to your instructors (through a microphone system) who would give you instructions. Then you’d have to try to come all the way back up, blowing bubbles out as you went.”

If you got ahead of your own bubbles, you’d be sent to the upper bell to “reload.” Just like in the real world, a BUD/S student coming up too fast could suffer from the bends. But after relaxing for a bit, you weren’t allowed to come back up yet, said Vincent.

“You’d have to go back to the first bell and start over.”

The dive tower was also used to test SEAL candidates on their ability to tie detonation cords underwater, he said.

Back in the pool, Vincent said they were put through something called “pool comp.” That was where, he said, the instructors really “messed with you.”

“The instructors were the sharks. They’d turn off the air to your (SCUBA) gear or tie your cords up. One time, an instructor tore the mouthpiece off my regulator,” Vincent said. “I leaned back, heard the sound of the hose and grabbed it to suck on for air.

“When I came back up, they said I’d passed.”

After completing the entire SEAL course load, Vincent actually received papers to join SEAL Team 4. Unfortunately, the situation in his personal life distracted him from focusing on physics demolitions requirements. The two points he had earned to get into BUD/S weren’t enough to get him a berth with Team 4 and the orders were rescinded.

But for that, Steve Vincent would have been a SEAL.

‘The highest honor’

“This is some of the coolest training I’ve ever had,” Vincent said of his time in SEAL school. “Not that they weren’t important, but everything I did in college … just doesn’t compare. It built my character and integrity.”

Vincent said from what little has been released of what happened in Abbottabad, Pakistan 11 nights ago, he can tell the training accomplished its purpose.

“You never know what’s going to happen. We lost four in Grenada due to bad intelligence,” said Vincent, referring to the 1983 U.S.-led invasion of the Caribbean island nation.

According to CyberSEALs.com, a website maintained by and for U.S. Navy SEALs, SEAL Team Six -- the same team that reportedly went after bin Laden May 1 -- was responsible for the rescue and evacuation of Grenada Gov. Sir Paul Scoon.

The site said four SEALs drowned during an offshore helicopter insertion. CyberSEALs did not indicate any cause, aside from a heavy combat load in high winds, for their drowning.

“When one falls, it hurts,” Vincent said, becoming emotional for a moment. “I still get upset today. It was joyous to see what happened with bin Laden. They met their objective. Even though it wasn’t good the way the helicopter came down, they all came home.

“There’s a saying: ‘The more pain and sweat you have in peace time, the less you bleed in war time.’ They told us during training that the reason they made us do certain things is because someone had bled.”

Stealth, he said, is a part of all three phases of training. That, perhaps, even extends to when SEALs aren’t on a mission.

“These guys, they’ll fade back into the dark and get ready for the next op.”

Navy SEALs aren’t Rambos, Vincent said.

“I’m a laidback, easy guy, but there’s a side of me most people have never seen, and I hope they never do,” he said.

A lot of missions, said Vincent, are intelligence gathering, not capture or kills as with bin Laden.

“They go out and assess missions, either for themselves or for someone else. Someone was on the ground (in Abbottabad) a long time ago. It’s so cool how they gathered intelligence that helped pull it off. They don’t do the job for themselves but for the guy beside them -- the guy to their right or to their left,” said Vincent.

But, he said, when the time comes to capture or take out someone as high profile as Osama bin Laden, they are ready and willing to go.

“It’s the highest honor to be on a mission like that,” Vincent said.

He said he recognized some of his training in what he’s heard about the Abbottabad mission.

“The (animation) of the helicopters coming in? It was neat to see that insert. Those guys are such operators -- the cream of the crop -- as soon as they hit, you can tell the training kicked in. They can clear a room like nobody else,” he said.

Make no mistake, Vincent said SEALs are trained to kill efficiently when they have to.

“(bin Laden) was tapped in the head; we were taught to make a double tap to the head. They’re taught to hit the target and move on to the next one. BUD/S trained them for that,” said Vincent.

After leaving SEAL school, Vincent was assigned to the USS Caloosahatchee, a fleet oiler that fueled other ships at sea. Unlike other classes of ships, the Caloosahatchee did not carry Marines for security.

“I think the captain saw my record and I ended up on the ship’s self-defense force protecting the ship,” Vincent said.

He and his SWAT-like team would be ready for any intruder or terrorist alerts and other security issues.

Vincent served in the Navy for four years, receiving an honorable discharge in 1988. He later joined the Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office, and was first elected as Kershaw County’s treasurer in 1997. In addition to a master’s degree in public administration from Troy University in Sumter, he earned a doctorate of ministry from Christian Leadership University.

Twenty-six years later, Vincent said he has never forgotten his time with those who became SEALs and how it continued to shape him to be the man he has become.

“I love God, I love my family, and I love my country. Those are things I fight for.”

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